Q&A with Rob White, author of Contemporary Film Directors book Todd Haynes

Rob WhiteThe Contemporary Film Directors series presents engagingly written commentaries on the work of living directors from around the world. Todd Haynes author Rob White was Commissioning Editor of Books at the British Film Institute, 1995–2005, and Editor of Film Quarterly, 2006–2013. He lives in London, England.  He answered our questions about the subject of his new book.

Q: Haynes has seemingly taken radical shifts in direction from film to film. Is there a commonality that can be found in each of his works?

White: Roughly speaking, Haynes alternates between films about “rock’n’roll suicide” (Superstar, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) and domestic melodramas (Safe, Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce). Then there are Poison and the TV short Dottie Gets Spanked, which make up a kind of early 1990s “New Queer Cinema” interlude. The music films are narratively complex mosaics whereas the family movies are linear, and that difference reinforces the pattern of alternation. It’s unusual for a filmmaker to split his work like this but of course it’s not a hard and fast division. There are numerous interconnections and one in particular comes to the fore in my book: it’s the drama of leaving home—which is both a specific story incident in almost all of Haynes’s films and something more symbolic. This ordinary life event takes on a larger metaphorical significance as a defining act of social noncompliance.

Home in Haynes’s films isn’t a happy place, even when it’s loving and protective. It’s a place of danger, especially for the misfit (though normality is tough too). Sometimes home is horrible or haunted—somewhere to get trapped or go mad. In perhaps the most powerful scene in the glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine, away from all its music-industry glitz and glamor, the teenage Arthur (Christian Bale) is humiliated by his father. Soon afterward he escapes on a bus from Manchester to London, and while the scene is made poignant by the fact that his mother runs after the vehicle to wave goodbye, it’s a scene of liberation, temporary and insufficient though it proves to be.

A more complex example is the journey Safe’s Carol (Julianne Moore) takes from her affluent life in southern California to a recovery community in New Mexico. Her conventional life has become unendurable—the comfort of it has actually started to make her sick—but her search for something better is much more risky than she realizes. Through such stories, Haynes dwells on the fundamental political question of what it means (and costs) not to belong, and I very much wanted in the book to stress the
consistency, coherence, and seriousness of this preoccupation in his work.

Q: How useful is the “New Queer Cinema” label to describe Haynes’s work?

White: Haynes’s place in gay cinema is somewhat paradoxical and this goes for the narrower question of his affiliation to New Queer Cinema too. The difficulty is that Haynes doesn’t dwell on gay subject matter in the obviously direct (and oppositional) fashion of New Queer Cinema films like Greg Araki’s The Living End, Derek Jarman’s Edward II, or Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. Haynes’s gay stories and characters are more ambivalent or tangential. For example, the men who have sex with men in the “Homo” storyline (adapted from Jean Genet) of Poison couldn’t be called role models. Then there’s tormented Frank (Dennis Quaid) in 1950s Far from Heaven, who meets a young man by the pool while on holiday and later admits desperately to his wife before he leaves her that only now does he comprehend what love is. Self-hatred and inhibition are burdens it’s hard to imagine ever lifting from him.

The problem is only resolved if “queer” is understood to be something that encompasses but goes beyond homosexuality itself. In a Film Quarterly interview published in 1993, a year after critic B. Ruby Rich baptized the New Queer Cinema movement, Haynes said: “People define gay cinema solely by content: if there are gay characters in it, it’s a gay film. . . . I think that’s really simplistic. Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a content. It is an imposed structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite or counter-sexual activity to that, then what kind of a structure would it be?” Queer is perhaps most usefully thought about in relation to Haynes’s films not as a sexual orientation but as a general name for refusing social and artistic norms. (After all, gay people can be just as
conservative as straight.) Once the idea is broadened like this, the heroically rebellious queers in Haynes’s films include not only the centrally important character of Richie in Poison’s “Hero” story, a boy who kills his father and abandons his mother, but also Carol in Safe and even, perhaps, for a little while, Mildred (Kate Winslet) in the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce 

Q: Unlike many “serious” filmmakers, Haynes does not shy from melodrama. Why does he embrace this cinematic tradition?

White: Haynes’s relation to melodrama really needs a whole book to itself. Haynes inherits both from directors like Douglas Sirk and Max Ophuls—emigrés who mastered the Hollywood domestic melodrama after World War II—and from the validation of their work in the 1970s by radical film critics and by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder as stinging critiques of the American mainstream rather than apolitical lightweight entertainment. (This question of the politics of melodrama continues to be debated, particularly in regard to Sirk: some insist that there’s no true subversive force in his films, though I certainly disagree.) Fassbinder updated Sirk in films like The Merchant of Four Seasons and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by making the attack on normality more explicit: the depiction of social cruelty and regimentation isn’t ambiguous in Fassbinder’s melodramas, as it mostly is in a Sirk film such as All That Heaven Allows. Haynes knowingly revives a lot of the Sirkian ironic varnish, but in full consciousness of and
affinity with Fassbinder’s less guarded reinvention.

Perhaps the crucial thing is that cinematic melodrama allows its exponents to play on
two boards: sympathetically exploiting the dramatic pathos of family strife at the same time as exposing the dark side of small-town conformism. Perhaps what appeals to such intelligent directors about melodrama is precisely that it can work in different and even conflicting ways at the same time. You can consider Far from Heaven, Haynes’s most direct homage to Sirk and Ophuls and Fassbinder, to be mainly a playful postmodern pastiche full of knowing allusions; you can be moved to tears by the characters’ struggles; or, as I do, you can regard the film as Haynes’s most hopeless and disturbing account of social entrapment. Maybe you can even do all three, and no doubt there are other alternatives too.

Todd HaynesQ: You interviewed Haynes at length for the book: what struck you most about his responses?

White: There were three interviews, which were eventually edited together. The first two
occurred when the writing was underway, the last when it was nearly finished. Talking to the subject of a book of criticism is of course both rewarding and potentially inhibiting because of a certain “anxiety of influence.” Even by the high standards of many directors, Haynes is precise and persuasive about the intended meanings of his films—his DVD commentary tracks are particularly interesting and absorbing. (There wasn’t a commentary available on Velvet Goldmine for a long time, but fortunately for my research the 2011 Blu-ray edition put this absence right.) We discussed each of Haynes’s films, including his high-school effort (which unfortunately wasn’t available to view), The Suicide, and his graduation film, Assassins: A Film Concerning Rimbaud (which I did see and so could identify its traces in the subsequent Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There). As it happened, by the way, Haynes’s comments about Safe ended up being the most directly influential on my interpretation.

I decided after the first interview not to quote from these new discussions in my analyses. There were a couple of reasons for this decision. The first is that the commentary tracks have a particular immediacy—Haynes is there actually watching the film while commenting—that gave plenty of detail to engage with. The second is that to partition analysis and interview in this way offers the reader the opportunity to consider Haynes’s statements without my explicit commentary on them. The separation obviously isn’t complete, the interviews permeate the analyses, but I hope this decision makes the reader’s experience more interesting. In any case, at the heart of my sense of Haynes’s work are representations in his films of mysterious solitude and psychic remove—but I
think it’s fair to add that the author himself doesn’t stress these depictions to the same degree.

What was very interesting to me about the interviews was Haynes’s undiminished
commitment to a radical critique of society—for example, when he affirms the continuing inspiration of Jean Genet or says: “The society is telling you that if you do these things you’re gonna be fine, and everything’s good, and you’ll be accepted, but you never really believe it, and we’re haunted by that.” But such remarks aren’t surprising, finally. Of all his films, I’m Not There probably has the bluntest political edge and for a while it could have seemed like Haynes was mellowing. But then, in many ways unexpectedly, along came the really tremendous Mildred Pierce, which is as edgy and haunted as anything Haynes has made (and in many ways the best synthesis yet of the different strands of his work). It’s just a masterpiece and I absolutely relished the opportunity to write about it early on in its life.


Photo courtesy of Rob White.

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